Modern and Contemporary History of the Political


[Pierre Rosanvallon]

In September 2015, I shall be publishing Le Bon Gouvernement, a book which draws from research presented in my lectures for 2014 and 2015. This work will round off a cycle of research dedicated to the mutations of contemporary democracy. We will thus have examined its four dimensions: active citizenship, political regime, form of society, form of government. Citizenship-democracy initially emerged around the conquest of universal suffrage, which I studied in Le Sacre du citoyen1; suffrage served all at once to define a political right, i.e. the power to be an active citizen, and a social status, that of being recognized as an autonomous individual involved in the civic community on an equal basis. This approach to citizenship expanded when citizens were no longer content with a mere vote as the means to affirm their sovereign position. Alongside the original electoral-representative sphere, a range of oversight, prevention and judgment practices gradually emerged, through which society exerts its powers of correction and pressure. Alongside the voter-people, they gave a voice and a face to the figures of the vigilant-people, veto-people and judge-people. While elections were a confidence-building mechanism, such practices embodied the exercise of defiance within the second sphere of civic activity. I outlined the history and theory of this expansion, which has played a major role since the 1980s, in my book La Contre-démocratie : la politique à l’âge de la défiance2.

Likewise, regime-democracy is defined by institutions and procedures designed to give form to the general will. It emerged in two major aspects. On the one hand, the institutions of representation: I outlined their history and examined their structural antinomies in Le Peuple introuvable3. And on the other hand, that of the institutions of sovereignty, the problematic edification of which I discussed in La Démocratie inachevée4. Next, I showed in La Légitimité démocratique5 how a new approach of the general will had sought to extend beyond the limitations of a purely majority-based expression; any power is thus considered fully democratic only to the extent that it has been subjected to tests of control and approval that both compete with and complement a majority expression. It is expected to comply with threefold requirements: distancing from partisan positions and vested interests (impartiality legitimacy), factoring in of multifarious expressions of the common good (reflexivity legitimacy), and recognition of every singularity (proximity legitimacy). Hence the growing influence in democracies of institutions such as independent Authorities and Constitutional courts. I both analyzed the contemporary crisis of representation and examined how it might be overcome in my essay Le Parlement des invisibles, which doubled as a manifesto for the Raconter la vie project initiated in 2014.


Democracy as a form of society is the third form. I had started to cover the issues in Le Sacre du citoyen, which showed in what sense the modern revolution had at first, in its most profound principles, been a “revolution of equality”, envisaged as a relationship, a manner of creating a “society of equals”. Interestingly, equality had originally been considered a democratic quality and an incarnation of togetherness, not merely a manner of distributing wealth. I explored this deeper still in La Société des égaux, a much more broad-sweeping examination of the issue, by showing how the shortcomings of equality as a concept were one of the key triggering factors in today’s growing inequality – which is destroying democracy as a form of society, thus paving the way for many other potential regressions of the democratic ideal.
Next, the upcoming book will examine the fourth dimension, namely government-democracy, with a description of the conditions that made it so crucial to the contemporary world further to the rise of the democratic regime’s new presidential-governing form.

1 Le Sacre du citoyen. Histoire du suffrage universel en France, Paris, Gallimard, 1992. 
2 Seuil 2006. Engl.: Counter-democracy: politics in an age of distrust, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2008.
3 Le Peuple introuvable. Histoire de la représentation démocratique en France, Paris, Gallimard, 1998.
4 La Démocratie inachevée. Histoire de la souveraineté du peuple en France, Paris, Gallimard, 2000.
5 La Légitimité démocratique. Impartialité, réflexivité, proximité, Paris, Seuil, 2008. Engl.: Democratic legitimacy: impartiality, reflexivity, proximity, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2011.


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